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Calgary photographer captures months of Beltline protests on film

Calgary photographer Ron Sparrow saw a chance to capture a bit of city history with Beltline-area protests, particularly because it was in his own backyard.

The freedom protests started on the weekends in July of 2020. The events were organized by Facebook groups Walk for Freedom and Calgary Freedom Central.

COVID-19 restrictions sparked the protests. They have shifted to 17 Avenue SW and the Beltline, where they started and finished in Central Memorial Park.

A group of counter-protestors from Community Solidarity Calgary organized to halt the protests. They blocked the road, preventing protesters from moving for two weeks.

Making the most of a difficult situation

Ron Sparrow poses for a photo in his home inside The Anderson Apartments on 17 Avenue in Calgary on Saturday, March 26, 2022. Sparrow is an avid photographer, and he started documenting the protests when they started to grow in size. (Photo by Alejandro Melgar/LiveWire)

Ron Sparrow is a professional forester. He was an operational forester until he came to Calgary in 2011 to care for his parents. His mother has dementia and is in the care of a group home. He still has a home south of Athabasca, Alta. 

Photography was a hobby for him, and he gained more skills six years ago when he moved to Calgary. It wasn’t until he read a book by George Webber called Prairie Gothic that his interest in photography grew.

“There was a picture in there of a dead cow,” said Sparrow.

The book changed his view of photography; he realized you can photograph anything. He has been refining what photography means for him ever since.

Sparrow approached the Calgary Folk Festival to shoot photos. He didn’t fully understand what he was doing, but he gained more experience and started covering other festivals.

Sparrow lives in the Beltline on 17 Avenue SW. He lives in apartments behind the Shoppers Drug Mart on 7 Street. It was where the initial altercations began between the Freedom Protests and Community Solidarity Calgary.

“When [the Freedom Protest] first came, there were about 20 people, and then it was 50 people, and it started to escalate from there,” said Sparrow. 

Ron Sparrow works on his light table inside his home along 17 Avenue SW in Calgary on Saturday, March 26, 2022. Sparrow is an avid photographer, and he started documenting the protests when they started to grow in size. ALEJANDRO MELGAR / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

The Beltline has many places for people to enjoy. Whether it’s the Ship and Anchor Pub, the plethora of cafés among 17 Avenue, or the restaurants throughout. As the protests took shape throughout the year, it halted service for everyone.

 “I wasn’t actively engaged with photographing them. I looked out my window, saw them there, and I simply would take a picture out the window, but nothing more than that,” said Sparrow.

“But as the group grew, and it became more disruptive day-to-day. It wasn’t simply shuffled through in 20 minutes when it was a small group. Suddenly, it was an hour, an hour or more that they’re out front, quite loud, quite boisterous.”

Sparrow stepped out and started documenting the protests with his two film cameras. COVID-19 limited the day-to-day for people, so Sparrow went out and used the opportunity to capture the events unfolding.

“I’ll just start to take photographs because this is something we’re probably not going to see again,” said Sparrow.

Experienced Account

Sparrow witnessed the protests in 2016 when Donald Trump was elected president. Sparrow was having a conversation with someone in a bar in Hollywood when democratic nominee Hillary Clinton conceded. He said that people started crying.

The person he was talking to “stopped and walked out. He didn’t pay his bill or anything,” said Sparrow.

That Saturday saw the protests stretch for kilometres. Twice as long as 17 Avenue SW.

Donald Trump’s win sparked protests. Sparrow saw these local protests differently.

“The first time I went down, I thought, holy smokes, there’s a lot of reasons why people are here. Some of them I understand, some of them I don’t understand.”

He went out week after week, as all kinds of Calgarians poured into the streets. Sparrow wanted to take photos and document what he saw, without printing them. 

“I’ll just [look at this] as a way of taking a break from life, buckle down and make the best of a situation.”

Sparrow says that the protests changed their tone at the end of February. A resident decided to take matters into their own hands.

One speaks for many

A woman stands in the middle of the road on 17 Avenue SW in Calgary on Feb. 18, 2022. PHOTO COURTESY RON SPARROW

A woman walked out of Blanco Cantina and stood in the middle of the road. With 50 or 80 metres between themselves and the protest, she flipped them the middle finger. She also shouted at them to leave the neighbourhood.

The police arrived soon after to escort her off the road, but she refused to leave.

Sparrow became worried for her safety. He decided to stop shooting photos as he felt the situation could get ugly.

“I was so worried about it, I stood in one spot the entire time and just watched her,” said Sparrow.

“I wasn’t tasked with the job, so my inclination is to ensure people are safe, rather than to take a photograph.”

A crowd of protesters gather around two women that are protected by CPS on 17 Avenue SW in Calgary on Feb. 18, 2022. PHOTO COURTESY RON SPARROW

A friend joined her on the road, and then the police bicycle unit arrived to keep her safe. She stood there the entire time with her finger in the air.

Sparrow is active while shooting photos during the protests, but he couldn’t move about taking photos on this day. The safety of this person was more important than coverage.

“A lot of people were yelling at her and gathering around, and then making like crude remarks and so on. It wasn’t a pleasant situation.”

‘…same thing every single weekend.’

There were no photographers present during the protests, until the woman showed up, according to Sparrow.

“It was the same thing every single weekend. It wasn’t until it erupted into something different to have something happen.”

He says that it was like the Tunisian man that set himself on fire at the start of the Arab Spring. That incident kick-started many more to advocate against those he was protesting.

“It’s not the same thing, but it got people started,” said Sparrow.

“It’s hard to stand back and take a picture of a woman flipping the bird. It doesn’t really do anything, but to see the anger and everybody’s face really would tell a story, but you don’t get involved because you’re afraid for her safety.”

People Rise Against The Tide

Ron Sparrow poses for a photo on the corner of 17 Avenue and 7 Street SW in Calgary on Saturday, March 26, 2022. Sparrow is an avid photographer, and he started documenting the protests when they started to grow in size. ALEJANDRO MELGAR / LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Community Solidarity Calgary showed up in a small group with CPS to block the road by the Shoppers Drug Mart. They attempted to block the road the following week further west in front of Western Canadian High School. The Freedom Protest was able to move around the group. Sparrow observed the events from the protester’s perspective.

“It was loud day, and you’ve got children and dogs and the like. The whole thing just doesn’t ring very well with me for safety,” said Sparrow.

“I had a hearing impairment after that.”

CPS received clearance from an injunction to arrest anyone that marched on the street on March 18.

The next week, six people were arrested and tensions peaked. Both sides clashed with police at Central Memorial Park, but 17 Avenue SW was free from the protests.

Sparrow will continue to document the protests with his camera, going to the new site for the protests – City Hall.

“I’ll go up this weekend, regardless of what’s going to happen, because I’m very curious to see how this is going wrap up,” Sparrow said.